Illustration by Ari Bennett
When Bill Burr plays the Wells Fargo Center on Friday and Madison Square Gardens on Saturday, he joins an elite club: the arena-rockers of comedy. Not bad for a salty ginger Masshole* former forklift operator from Canton, Mass. So last week we got him on the horn. DISCUSSED: The ’83 Sixers; his forthcoming animated TV show F Is For Family; playing Madison Square Gardens like he’s the goddamn Aerosmith of comedy; why he’s a licensed helicopter pilot; impending drone-triggered air disasters; The Spectrum; how bloggers make more money than the president (this is news to us); Mo Cheeks; post-Presidency speaking tours are nothing but money laundering corporate bribes; Dr. J; living in the End Times of America; Bernie Sanders; Moses Malone; the insanity of continuing to voting Democrat and Republican; why he doesn’t own a gun; the last time he was in a fist fight; shame at the Red Roof Inn; being a happy drunk; Bill Cosby is a monster; and the innumerable advantages of having people underestimate your intelligence. *Actually, he just plays one on stage
PHAWKER: So you are playing the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, that’s like nineteen fucking thousand people. The next night you are doing Madison Square Garden which is eighteen thousand people! You better have awesome pyro, dude.
BILL BURR: Once you put the stage in there it eats up like a third of the arena so it’s more like eleven thousand people.
PHAWKER: Have you played rooms this size before?
BILL BURR: No, the reason why I’m doing that one in Philly is to get ready for the Madison Square one, and it’s just something that came about through the New York Comedy Festival where they have a comic do it every year. So I’m doing the Philly thing to get used to doing a venue of that size, so I’m really excited. I’ve got to be honest with you, dude, I wish the Spectrum was still around because that was the one I grew up watching, you know all those Flyers and 76ers teams. To this day I always have an argument with people when they say the ‘96 Bulls are the greatest team of all time, and I always say the ‘83 76ers. There’s no way that doesn’t go seven games, and they always go, “Oh fucking what about Jordan?” I’m like, “Dr. J, Scottie Pippen, alright Mo Cheeks and Andrew Toney. Now we’re underneath the hoop and you got Luc Longley and I got Moses fuckin’ Malone that’s the tipping point of the series right there.”
PHAWKER: Speaking of which, can I ask you to make the concession about Philadelphia fans that as you know we have a horrible reputation nationally as being the people who booed Santa Claus and kick little girls when they’re down and make fun of cancer patients and all those kind of things. But Philadelphia the city where you personally and very famously ripped the entire city and all of its environs a new asshole in a very, very funny lengthy 15-20 minute rant. I mean you literally wished the Ben Franklin Bridge would fall into the ocean, and it’s not even near the ocean.
BILL BURR: That whole thing got exaggerated. I have to be honest with you, having traveled the country, the worst fans out there are on the west coast. I mean look, the west coast is like, you saw the guy at the Dodgers game he’s wearing a Giants jersey with his two kids and these Dodgers fans kick him in the head and he has brain damage for the rest of his fuckin’ life, I mean they’re animals out there. Somebody got shot at a 49ers Oakland Raider preseason game. So I don’t know why they’re always coming down on Philly fans you know what I mean. I think because what Phillies fans do, as rude as it is, there’s still an element of it that’s hilarious, where what they do on the west coast is not funny and people’s lives are changed or ended. When I go to games out on the west coast I don’t wear anybody’s jersey I just go dressed in regular clothes and I silently root for my team if they’re playing against the California team because they take it too fucking seriously out there, it’s not a fun place to be as a sports fan so I don’t have a problem, I mean I lived as a Boston fan in New York and I wore my jersey to the games and I got shit, but once they saw I was an alright guy they just broke my balls and the same thing has happened like with Philly it’s definitely more intense than New York but there is that thing that once they see you’re a sports fan, you’re not being a dick it’s nothing like the way it is in LA where it’s awful. They can’t talk the game intelligently and then they take it to this physical, ‘I’m going to stab you in the fucking neck!’ thing.
PHAWKER: My point is that even though you said all those horrible things about Philadelphia, something like 14, 000 of us are buying tickets to see you on Friday. Can you at least acknowledge that we can take it as much as we can dish it out? Can we at least get credit for that?
BILL BURR: Yeah I don’t have any beef. It was just because of that one show that everybody felt like I actually gave a shit. If I was in Kentucky and I was getting booed I would have trashed Kentucky. You know what I mean.?
PHAWKER: I feel ya, dawg.
BILL BURR: That’s all it was.
PHAWKER: Okay let’s move on. Tell me about F Is For Family.
BILL BURR: F Is For Family is about this Murphy family raising their kids in 1973 somewhere in the rust belt in the United States of America. It’s the ‘70s that I remember so one of our mission statements was no lava lamps or disco, no bell bottoms and wide lapels and all of that stupid shit. You know how they try to make the ‘70s look like everybody was doing cocaine and running a radio station, the Hollywood version of the ‘70s, that’s not the way it looked. It’s the early ‘70s so there are some early ‘0s cars, most of the cars are from the ‘60s because most people drive a car that’s like five, six years old and a couple from the 1950’s which were just considered pieces of shit rather than classics back then.
PHAWKER: It’s an animated show, correct?
BILL BURR: Yeah, and it stemmed from me trying to tell childhood stories on stage throughout my career and how when I was a young man in the 90s people related to the stories, and then somewhere in the 2000s as I became a middle-aged man and I felt a generation gap where all the sudden the kids that grew up wearing helmets when they rode bicycles and had play dates and their parents really paid attention to them where for me I was a latchkey kid, go outside and play get out of here they didn’t know where you were going they didn’t know what you were doing. I found in the late 2000s some of my stories, they would still get laughs but it was a different sort of laugh and there were a couple ‘awws’ kind of thing and I was like ‘Wait a minute, this shit’s funny, right?’ And it would get frustrating that the political correctness thing was kind of creeping in and people say this is abusive.
PHAWKER: Bad parenting or whatever.
BILL BURR: Yeah, yeah all super super sensitive but I knew because at the end of the show everybody would come up to me who was young like my dad was like that blah blah blah so I think in a lot of ways things have not changed. Like human beings don’t change that quickly, they don’t socially change that quickly so I think what happened was there became this public thing that there was a certain way you acted and behaved when a lot of the shit was the same. So the thrill that I’m having is that the people who are animating the show are in their twenties and they’re loving it thinking it’s hilarious, and then their parents are hearing about it, seeing clips and they can’t wait to see it. So I feel like it’s still going to be, what I always thought that people could relate to these stories. And the fact that it’s animated you can totally take it over the top in certain areas and it’s a lot of fun.
PHAWKER: Did you ever consider doing it with live actors instead of as a cartoon?
BILL BURR: No, the reason why I picked a cartoon was because I just wanted to get out of the whole hair, makeup, wardrobe grind of doing the show. It just seemed like animation was a lot more fun and then also like there’s a certain level of being known where it’s not fun anymore. So I have notoriety which is great, which means I walk down the street nobody really knows who I am but if you put my name in front of a building enough people will show up that I can make some money. So that’s the level that I like to stay at as much as I can. I don’t know what the guy who does Homer Simpson’s voice looks like you know what I mean? But I know he’s got a nice big ass house.
PHAWKER: Point taken. Moving on, you recently became a licensed helicopter pilot, correct?
BILL BURR: Yes I did, in May.
PHAWKER: Okay tell me about this because you seem like a really common sense guy, driving a helicopter seems like a really dangerous thing. What’s the attraction?
BILL BURR: Well this is what I’ve learned since I’ve done it, the most dangerous thing you’ll ever do is get in your car and drive down the highway.
PHAWKER: Fair enough.
BILL BURR: Like the insanity of driving down a highway now that I have my pilot’s license is really something that I can’t believe I never questioned. You’re basically driving down the street in formation like you’re in the Blue Angels but you’re not in radio contact with anybody and you have no idea what that person’s going to do, you don’t know if they’re on drugs, you don’t know if they’re texting. I mean I was driving home recently, I just had a great flight and I landed and driving home on the highway and I see all these fire engines and shit and there was an off ramp and it was straight, one of those off ramps that went straight up the hill so I could see the whole thing, it was straight and there’s this car completely tipped over on its roof, it’s just like how the fuck did you even do that? The only thing I could think of was that they were driving straight through too fast and were looking down texting or weren’t paying attention and all the sudden there was somebody in front of them and they just cut the wheel and slammed on the breaks and somehow whipped it. So as crazy as it is I think people have way too much security with the car because you’re on the ground and the thing about a helicopter is when you’re going up in the air you do like a half-hour pre-flight before you even go in there to make sure everything is the way it should be, and those things have 100-hour inspections and at 2200 hours the entire thing is taken apart and anything that looks remotely not copacetic is replaced with something brand new. So those things are brand new every 2200 hours. Just imagine every 2200 hours you drove your Ccar, the entire thing was brand new. I’m talking about the body, the entire thing was brand new.
PHAWKER: Now why a helicopter and not an airplane?
BILL BURR: Because I do everything the hard way. You know learning how to fly a helicopter evidently is harder than learning how to fly a fixed-wing aircraft. I didn’t know that, I just thought they were cool. It’s also like really flying where you can just stop in midair like a fucking hummingbird, you can fly backwards, sideways, however you want to fly. But what you give up with that mobility is forward speed so I can only fly 104 knots in the thing that I fly, the R22, the R44 is more like 130 I think. But airplanes can cruise around at 160, 180, 200 knots depending on what you have. And there’s all these rules about where we fly, where they fly which is why drones are so goddamn dangerous, any person can just get one and send it up there. What people don’t understand is, from the ground up all airspace is classified with the letters A through G and then there’s rules in each airspace, what you can and can’t do, when everybody follows the rules, hypothetically there shouldn’t be any problems. Now you’ve got a bunch of kids basically sending flying rocks up into the air. And I’m telling you right now, dude, and this is no Nostradamus shit it’s common sense, something fucking terrible is gonna happen before they make laws.
PHAWKER: Oh yeah absolutely.
BILL BURR: Some guy at Southwest Airline in the final approach into LAX and he reported seeing one and the potential of those fucking things I won’t even say to you because I don’t want you to write it to give anybody any ideas. It is absolutely insane that they’re allowing people to use those things.
PHAWKER: I don’t understand this notion of how Amazon is going to be using them to deliver. That just sounds insane. There’s gonna be what eight million helicopters carrying around little fucking Whole Foods bags to people’s apartments? That doesn’t make any sense at all.
BILL BURR: No and it’s the disease of corporations where they can never make enough money and they don’t give a shit about the quality of life that they affect, they don’t give a shit about the water supply, they don’t give a shit about the food supply, they don’t give a shit about human beings, they don’t give a shit about anything, and it’s one the reasons why I can’t watch this Presidential election because none of that shit will be talked about because politicians are so grossly underpaid that they need that corporate money and when they take that corporate money, they’re bought and paid for and it’s why I can’t sit there and look at somebody like, you’re a Democrat, you’re a Republican because you’re not. The President makes 400 grand a year, it’s pathetic. Bloggers on the Internet make more money than the fucking leader of the free world. The guy is completely 100% set up to be bribed. It’s an office that costs $100 million to get to make 400 grand a year. And then at the end, after you’re done, watch Obama he’s going to go around giving “speeches” for a million dollars a night for the same people that put him in office. That’s just them washing their bribe money. He will retire as a multi-fucking millionaire. I’ve been doing a bit about drones. You’re gonna be sitting there watching fucking toilet seats going by and comforters.
PHAWKER: Well yeah and that’s what I was going to say, the reason that there will be a major action before there’s any safety legislation put into action is because the people who build drones have much more political pull than say the people like you and me who actually believe in this world.
BILL BURR: And this is the thing too, those guys the heads at Amazon they’ll have their gated communities their neighborhoods will be no fly zones. You know how they do that they protect their own little part of the world it’s like the population problem, nobody talks about it and you hear about all these politicians buying up land that sits on aquifers because they know that water is going to be the new oil in the future. Rather than being like, hey guys we really got a fucking problem here. We’re fishing out the oceans, we’re running out of this stuff. It’s why I won’t watch a second of it because it’s so overwhelmingly depressing to listen to these people talking about this ticky tack shit as the whole thing is going down the drain. But I really feel that that’s what’s supposed to happen. I’ve just sort of given in to it. It’s the only way I can just mentally get through the day, I just think, well there’s supposed to be a beginning, middle, and end. That’s just the way the universe works.
PHAWKER: And we’re at the end time too you think?
BILL BURR: I mean what the fuck do I know. All I know does it look like we’re headed towards a Will Smith type of movie.
PHAWKER: Not to turn this whole thing into a political discussion, but you’re not following Bernie Sanders, he’s not on your radar? Because I mean he’s not taking any corporate money he’s kind of the antithesis of all these things you’re talking about. You’re not even buying that?
BILL BURR: I don’t need an entire fucking year of speeches to decide who I’m going to vote for. I always end up voting for that third party person who people tell me, oh you wasted your vote. Which I completely disagree with. I disagree that encouraging more people for a third party to run is not wasting a vote. I think it’s insanity to keep voting CDemocrat and Republican.
PHAWKER: I agree. Obviously they don’t represent the people’s needs. Moving on, this isn’t a political discussion
BILL BURR: And I don’t follow politics but I have an opinion, and therein lies my point of view of my act. It’s listening to me have strong points of view about things I don’t pay attention to.
PHAWKER: I was meaning to ask you, do you own a gun?
BILL BURR: No my wife won’t allow it.
PHAWKER: If your wife didn’t feel that way would you have one or would you carry?
BILL BURR: No I wouldn’t carry but I definitely would have one in the house. I mean I live in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a weird city where it’s like I live in this area where if you go just north of me it’s some of the most expensive beautiful houses you’ve ever seen but if you go a block south of me there’s like a check-cashing place with shifty people hanging out in front of it so Halloween is fucking hilarious, the people that come. I have everything from little rich kids to fucking people I think are on drugs. I had a guy come walking up one year, he looked like a strung-out Jim Croce with a Tom Selleck bushy mustache and he’s just standing there and I was just like, seriously? And he’s like, yes. I don’t think he even spoke English I think he was just hungry. So I just gave him candy bars and I was just giving out full-sized candy bars because I wanted to be that house and word got out and everybody started coming back around and adults were coming up and shit and the whole thing backfired. And my neighborhood is one of those neighborhoods, sometimes it looks neighborly and sometimes you come out and somebody smashed your window and stole all your shit.
PHAWKER: Well Los Angeles is like that, it’s a patchwork of the very rich and the very poor. On a related note, you sort of have a rep as a scrapper and being a get-in-your-face kind of guy, when was the last time you were ever in a fistfight or were you ever in a fistfight?
BILL BURR: Exactly. Jesus, well you’re going back to high school, junior high maybe.
PHAWKER: Oh wow that’s a long time ago.
BILL BURR: Well yeah you can’t walk around as an adult getting into fistfights you go to jail. You get sued.
BILL BURR: Yeah I mean I had four brothers growing up and we fought every day. If you want to take away like fist fights with my own family members like the last one I had in a Red Roof Inn in the early 2000s when I was in my 30s I’m not proud of that one.
PHAWKER: This is a family member I guess?
BILL BURR: Yeah. Let me just explain this real quick. What happened to me with fighting was, I fought through grade school and right up through junior high and then what happened was everybody fucking started hitting puberty and I hit it late so all the sudden I was like six inches shorter than people. So that’s when I had to switch to humor to keep people off me. I was leaning on the baby fat weight up until fourth or fifth grade then around sixth or seventh grade I started losing fights and then by eighth grade I was on the shorter side so that kind of took my confidence away and I had to go the more funny route. So I think I was sort of involved in one under the fucking golden arches of a McDonald’s one time. I think we got pepper sprayed I mean we’re going back like thirty fucking years I’m a forty-seven year old guy so. But once I got out into the real world and there were bar fights and people were literally getting bottles smashed, a buddy of mine he has a scar on his forehead he sued this other kid. I was like alright man this has gone way beyond what I’m willing to be involved in so I was never beyond just the fistfight, alright you give, alright I give, to that level. I never was that level of Mad Max maniac that you have to be to get into a bar fight.
PHAWKER: That kind of UFC savagery.
BILL BURR: And that didn’t even exist. Nowadays you go out there and there are people imitating shit that they see on MMA. There’s actually people out there who put people in chokes and they killed them because there’s no ref to come in and stop it and they don’t know what they’re doing and their adrenaline is going. It’s just one of those things where I was just like hey I like my teeth in my head, I like having both eyes work. I’m a happy drunk so no, that’s a big misconception of me, I think.C
PHAWKER: I’m glad we could clarify that. I kind of thought that was the case. On a related note, you’re a much smarter guy than you let on, specifically in your act, and I’m curious how old you were when you realized the advantages of having people underestimate you.
BILL BURR: I think that’s more of a confidence thing. I think I’ve always had that weird duality of confident and completely totally insecure so I always underplay what it is that I’m doing because I don’t have the confidence in the short term that things are going to work out for me, but in the long run I have this weird sort of Zen I know everything’s going to be fine. But I’m not as bad as I used to be, but I was sort of questioning everything I was doing in my 20s and 30s.
PHAWKER: What are your thoughts on the whole Bill Cosby situation? Growing up, was he a comedy hero for you?
BILL BURR: I mean I have the same thoughts that anybody would have, I have the same opinion everybody has, total disbelief and I don’t think I’ve still been able to – obviously I believe it’s true but I’ve always said if you gave me a thousand guesses when there’s a comic out there who’s secretly this monster, when you say Bill Cosby I would be like, dude there’s no way it’s Bill Cosby and I would probably say no fucking way fifty-eight different ways like that’s one of those ones that affects your outlook on human beings, to act this way and be that way simultaneously. I was sitting in an airport waiting to go on my latest flight out here and I was just thinking I really think we are hairless apes we just are. We’re fucking animals and there’s nobody keeping us in check. I can tell you right now if there were any other species on the planet doing to the environment what we are doing we would hunt it down and kill it.